Your dog means the world to you, so it makes sense to do whatever you can to keep them healthy and happy. However, what you may not fully realize is the importance of your dog's gut. Poor digestive health is at the forefront of many conditions. Luckily, a healthy gut and digestive system make a healthy pup. So how can you ensure that Fido's digestive health is at its very best? One of the easiest ways is through canine probiotics.
In this article, we aim to inform you, our readers, about the importance of a healthy digestive system and provide a detailed guide for incorporating probiotics into your dog's diet to improve your dog's health.
What are Probiotics For Dogs?
The word probiotics literally translates to "for life." The word originates from the Latin preposition “pro” meaning “for” and the Greek word “bios” meaning “life.”
Probiotics are vital microorganisms that live in various parts of your dog’s body, including:
- The gastrointestinal tract
- The oral cavity
- Nasal cavity
- Respiratory organs
- On the surface of the skin
Probiotics are often referred to as "good bacteria." You may be aware that not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, your dog needs certain bacteria to stay healthy. Probiotics are friendly bacteria that mimic the naturally occurring bacteria already present in the body. Humans can reap the benefits of probiotics when we eat certain foods such as yogurt, tempeh, and cheese, or through synthetically formulated probiotics.
Either way, it is incredibly important that there is a healthy balance of good vs. bad bacteria in your dog's body.
What Do Probiotics Do?
Probiotics play a key role in helping your gut to stay as healthy as it possibly can. The digestive tract is at the forefront of keeping your body functioning properly. In fact, the health of the digestive tract affects nearly every other process within the body. Remarkably, the food you eat and how your body digests and processes it can even affect cognitive function as well as mood. That’s where probiotics come into play. Probiotics usually target gut health, specifically, improving digestion so that the food you eat is broken down in an effective way that allows the nutrients to be absorbed and metabolized appropriately.
How Do Probiotics Work?
Probiotics are healthy, beneficial bacteria that are, in fact, live organisms. They are typically various species of the Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus groups. These live organisms help to balance the good and bad bacteria that live within the gut. It may surprise you to know just how easy it is for good and bad bacteria to become imbalanced in the body and cause digestive issues. Bad bacteria can outweigh good bacteria because of illness, an unbalanced diet, or because of antibiotic treatment. It's unfortunately relatively easy for bad bacteria to take over. That's why probiotics are so important.
Dog Probiotics Vs. Human Probiotics
Some pet supply companies manufacture probiotics that are specifically formulated for dogs and cats. With that said, many human probiotics are safe for canine consumption. The dose, however, will vary. Additionally, many probiotics for humans come in a pill that can be swallowed. If you've ever had to give your dog a pill then you know what a challenge it can be. For this reason, many pet owners may choose to purchase chewable probiotic supplements for Fido. As always, we recommend consulting your vet regarding the appropriate product and dose for your dog's individual needs.
Probiotics Benefits for Dogs
Similar to their benefits in humans, probiotics can provide Fido with a slew of health advantages. Take a look at the ways in which probiotics can help your four-legged friend.
- Alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Treat diarrhea or constipation
- Calm an upset stomach
- Improve overall digestion
- Prevent urinary tract infections
- Prevent allergies or soothe their symptoms
- Regulate moods and behaviors
- Support immune health
- Regulate appetite and weight
Additionally, your dog doesn't have to be facing any current ailments in order to benefit from probiotics. In fact, just about any dog can benefit from a probiotic supplement. Furthermore, studies are finding that probiotics may also help aging dogs by supporting the immune system and helping to prevent the development of some illnesses.
Does My Dog Need Probiotics?
Most dogs don't necessarily "need" a probiotic supplement. However, as we previously mentioned, just about every dog can benefit from probiotics. If your dog is currently facing an ailment, your veterinarian may recommend a higher dosage. (This is why we always recommend consulting your vet!) Additionally, if the bad bacteria in your dog's gut outnumber the good bacteria, it is imperative to understand why. Simply adding probiotics will not entirely correct the underlying problem. Again, talk to your vet regarding why your dog's bacteria may be imbalanced and work to correct the problem from the inside, out.
Furthermore, if your dog has any of the following conditions, it is very likely that they do in fact need a probiotic supplement:
- Allergies to food or the environment
- An infection or virus
- A change to a new food
- Parasitic infection
- Use of antibiotics or other medication that affects the body’s natural flora
- Stress due to a new environment or situation
If you know that your dog is going to experience some form of change that will likely cause digestive upset, experts recommend starting a dog probiotic supplement a few days beforehand. These changes may include switching dog food, as well as traveling or moving. Dogs can be highly sensitive animals. If something is stressing you out, chances are, it's also stressful for Fido. A probiotic supplement is a great way to manage the associated stress and anxiety.
Probiotics Side Effects
When given in the appropriate dosage, probiotics typically don’t cause many side effects. However, too many probiotics can throw your dogs system out of whack. If too much of a probiotic supplement is given, extreme diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting may occur. Additionally, it is important to monitor probiotic intake in dogs with weakened immune systems.
Furthermore, probiotics can also multiply too rapidly. This can lead to inflammation or infection. Luckily, the vast majority of issues that may be caused by dog probiotics can be prevented. We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it is important to consult your veterinarian regarding the appropriate dosage in order to minimize or prevent any side effects.
Types of Probiotics for Dogs
There are a few different types of probiotics. Most of the time, your veterinarian will recommend giving your dog a probiotic supplement that’s specifically formulated for dogs. Typically, the supplement will be in either a chewable or powder form. (Pills and dogs generally don't always do well together and the manufacturers keep this in mind when formulating probiotic products for canines).
It is important to note that each type of probiotic can help your dog in a different way. Therefore, choosing the right probiotic for your dog's individual needs can be a bit tricky.
Top Probiotic for Dogs
The best probiotic for your dog will depend on your dog's individual needs.
One of the most common groups of probiotic bacterial strains for dogs is known as Lactobacillus. These bacteria help to increase nutrient absorption, thus allowing your dog to receive the most out of their meals. Probiotics that contain Lactobacillus strains also help to prevent digestive upsets, including diarrhea and nausea, while ensuring that your dog gets plenty of vitamins and nutrients from their food.
Another common bacterial strain used in probiotics is referred to as Bifidobacterium. Bifidobacterium helps to boost your dog's overall health and support the immune system. This is particularly beneficial for dogs that are recovering from an illness, as well as those with weakened immune systems due to aging. This group or genus of bacteria is known to alleviate the signs and reduce the severity of the illness.
Purina FortiFlora is one of the more commonly recommended probiotic supplements. It has also been analyzed and proven to meet the claims on its label. It produces antioxidants to boost the immune system, while beneficial bacteria support the health of the dog’s intestinal tract.
Before jumping on the supplement bandwagon, we recommend trying to implement probiotics in the form of natural food. Of course, this may not be an option for dog parents who have a pup that refuses to eat such food (that's where supplements come in handy). However, if your dog has a healthy appetite, we suggest trying out the following natural probiotic options.
Kimchi and Fermented Veggies
Kimchi and fermented veggies are a great way to ensure that your pup is receiving a healthy dose of natural probiotics. Interestingly enough, fermented foods are already partially digested. The fermentation process helps multiply the good, beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes.
Raw Goat Milk
Another great option is raw goat's milk. Raw goat's milk is typically safe for dogs (check with your vet if you're unsure) and contains a bountiful amount of naturally-occurring probiotics. It also has a very small amount of lactose, which therefore causes very little (if any) digestive upset (a significant difference from cow's milk). Because of its increased popularity, many pet food stores now carry raw goat’s milk.
Additionally, kefir made with raw goat's milk is another great option for picky eaters. Kefir is packed with natural probiotics and makes for a beneficial topper on your dog's balanced meal. You can find kefir at your local grocery store but make sure that it is unsweetened!
Also, many pet parents may enjoy making their own kefir. We've included a recipe for coconut milk kefir below!
Coconut Milk Kefir Recipe
- 2 to 4 Tbsp of milk kefir grains
- 4 cups of coconut milk (or 2 cans of coconut milk)
- Place the milk kefir grains with the coconut milk in a half gallon glass mason jar
- Cover lightly and leave at room temperature for at least 12 hours (this is where the fermentation takes place)
- After 12 hours, taste the kefir to determine if it has reached the desired level of fermentation
- Strain out the milk kefir grains and add new coconut milk and repeat the entire process
- Store the fermented coconut milk kefir in your refrigerator
Finally, one of the easiest ways to ensure that your beloved four-legged friend is getting probiotics is to just allow them to be a dog. Playing in the dirt allows the entry of soil-based microorganisms into the dog's system.
Allowing your dog to play around in nature is a simple, effective way to help your dog naturally build up their immune system.
Finding the Best Probiotic Supplement for Dogs
We understand that all natural probiotics in food may not work for everything or even all dogs. If this is the case, there are still some important factors you need to be aware of.
There are a few things that you should look for on the probiotics label to ensure you're purchasing the best supplement.
First, you want to look at the list of specific probiotics that the product contains. This includes strain identification. There are several probiotic strains of bacteria and each strain does something different. Some strains have anti-inflammatory effects, while others are better immune stimulants. More strains or different forms of bacteria do not not necessarily mean better probiotics. This is because they can sometimes work against one another. Most of the probiotics that work well have single strains.
Next, you'll want to look at the guaranteed analysis of how many live bacteria will exist at the end of the shelf life of the product. It’s entirely possible that by the time you purchase the product, all of the probiotics may have died and are therefore, no longer effective. This is why guaranteed analysis is so important.
Finally, make sure to look at the use-before date, and of course, ensure your dog can consume the entire product before that date.
Did You Know That Probiotics Need Prebiotics?
More fun information! Many pet parents may not know that probiotics need prebiotics. Probiotics are a little different than prebiotics. Prebiotics are the indigestible carbohydrates that support probiotics and supply them with the nourishment they need to thrive in the digestive tract. Feeding prebiotics along with probiotics provides your dog with what is known as synbiotics.
Synbiotics refers to a beneficial interaction or synergy between two separate things. Prebiotics and probiotics create an ideal coupling and work together to support the overall health of your dog.
Types of Prebiotics
Adding the following prebiotics to your dog's diet can help tremendously.
- Green leafy veggies (dandelion leaves are especially good)
All of the foods listed, except garlic, can be given in the amount you see fit. Garlic, while totally safe in appropriate amounts, does need to be monitored. Pet owners should feed Fido fresh, organic US-grown garlic. Dogs can consume up to 1 tsp per 30 lbs of weight per day.
Administering the Probiotic Effectively and Efficiently
A veterinarian will be able to give you specific instructions and dosage requirements based on your dog's weight and dietary needs. Your vet will also be able to provide you with helpful tips for administering the probiotic. For instance, you may want to purchase a probiotic powder supplement instead of capsules. This way, you can mix it in with your dog's food to slowly introduce the supplement.
A great feature of probiotics is that they typically begin to work right away. Of course, for the dog to digest the probiotic and have it enter their lower portions of the gut can take several hours. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that some dogs may take a couple of days before balance is achieved in their digestive system and the probiotic exerts its effects. Long-term effects may take up to a few weeks before pet owners see any noticeable change.
Finally, as with all things new, we recommend starting slowly. There’s no need to rush the process when it comes to implementing a probiotic supplement into your dog's diet. The last thing that you want to do is cause more harm than good and upset your dog's gastrointestinal tract in the process. Patience is key.
Probiotics for Dogs: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your four-legged companion. We get it. Here at Honest Paws, we are all dog owners and pet lovers. Therefore, we know just how hard it can be when something is "off" with Fido.
What many pet parents don't realize is just how important the gi tract and overall gut health truly is. So many conditions begin with an unhealthy gut, and many of these illnesses are difficult to reverse. Luckily, adding a probiotic supplement can make a world of difference for Fido's digestive health.
A probiotic supplement is an easy and effective way to balance the good and bad bacteria in your dog's gut. Remember, bad bacteria will always exist, and that's ok! As long as there is a healthy balance, you can be sure that your dog's health and well-being is at an optimal level.
Petal Smart is a veterinarian who, after a brief stint in clinical practice, has been a medical, veterinary, and science editor for the past four years. She has edited hundreds of research studies that have been published in various academic journals, and more recently, she has been editing blog articles on pet health. She holds a DVM (Hons) from the University of the West Indies - St. Augustine. Her pets in the past have included dogs, fish, birds, and a turtle. At times, she also likes to think of herself as a horse whisperer. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
*This article has been edited and updated for publication by Petal Smart, DVM.